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The Battles of Custoza: 1848 and 1866

Updated: Mar 11, 2021

Inspired by Bertgold’s Seewald article in Die Welt, here is a brief examination and contextualization of two battles of central importance in the history of Central Europe, involving Prussia, Austria and Italy: Custoza, 1848 & 1866.

Austrian final assault in Custoza (1866). Photo: Wikimedia Commons, {{PD-US}}

In the mid-19th century, Austria was a European superpower, Prussia rivalled Austria’s claim to the status of the German-speaking worlds’ most powerful state, and neither Germany nor Italy were wholly ‘unified’ until 1871. Simultaneously during this era were Napoleon III’s unsuccessful attempts to create a French sphere of influence in Italy and a war with Prussia (that tale includes a carriage meeting at Plombières in 1858, bloody battles in Magenta and Solferino and a final defeat in Sedan in 1870). Historians amongst our readers will be familiar with Prussia’s 1866 war against Austria, which culminated in Austria’s defeat at Königgrätz, and resulted in the creation of the Prussian-dominated North German Confederation, the exclusion of Austria from a ‘Kleindeutschland’ and an end to the duality of power in Germany. Motivated by a desire to seize Venetia, the newly formed Kingdom of Italy entered a secret pact with Otto von Bismarck. Despite a heavy numerical disadvantage, Austrian forces allied with the Venetian army defeated the Italians, though shortly afterwards ceded Venetia to the Italians via the Treaty of Vienna. Berthold Seewald examines the significance of the battle here, claiming the battle is Austria’s last great triumph over Italy. This is not to be confused with 1848’s Battle of Custoza, 18 years prior. As part of the First Italian War of Independence, the Austrian Imperial Forces led by General Radetzky were able to defeat Piedmontese forces, who had used the Milanese uprising as a pretext to attempt to expel Austrian occupation from the territory and in doing so help postpone revolution in Northern Italy and in part preserve Metternich’s Europe. The whole story is a complex mess of imperial ambition, monarchies and republics, foreign occupation, top-down and bottom-up revolutions, a mish-mash of conservatism, liberalism and nationalism, war and conference diplomacy. It’s also completely fascinating.

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